The lectionary gospel reading tomorrow, the last Sunday before Lent, is Matt 17.1–9, Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration. There some important things to note in relation to this passage as we think about preaching on it.
All three Synoptic accounts place this immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus then starts to talk about his betrayal and death. They seem to want us to hold these two truths together: that the Son of Man is one who is humble and obedient even to death, and yet he is also the one spoken of in Daniel 7 where he comes to the Ancient of Days and receives a kingdom that will never end. Both of these are true about Jesus, and both must be held together. This is made clear by the final saying of Jesus in the previous pericope (section):
Amen I say to you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Mark ‘the kingdom of God come with power’) (Matt 16.28).
All three gospels then follow this by specifying the short time period of about a week between that and the revelation on the mountain, the only place in Matthew where he is so specific about a time period. The ‘some’ makes sense when we see Jesus taking with him only his inner circle of Peter, James and John, as he does later at Gethsemane. John then talks of having ‘seen [Jesus’] glory’ (John 1.14) and 2 Peter 1.17–18 also includes testimony to this incident.
The language of ‘transfiguration’ (which derives from the Latin of the Vulgate here), is rather unhelpful. There is a ‘transformation’, but in contrast to the other incident of divine revelation from heaven at Jesus’ baptism in Matt 3, the perspective is that of the disciples, not of Jesus himself. So he is transformed ‘before them’ and Moses and Elijah appear ‘before them’. In fact, the whole emphasis in Matthew’s account is on the disciples (count how many times ‘they’ or ‘them’ occur). As is clear from the ending of the episode, where Jesus is alone, the point is not a change in Jesus, but a change in their understanding of who he is. The full truth will only come after his death and resurrection, but these privileged three have a foretaste, an anticipation ahead of time, which will only really make sense later.
The three Synoptics vary considerably in the exact language that they use to describe Jesus’ appearance; it is difficult to know what it would have looked like had we been there and filmed it on our iPhones, but what the gospel writers want us to know is its significance. The language Matthew uses here is that of divine presence, picking up Old Testament language of God as clothed in light, and in particular of Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Although there are parallels here with Sinai, there are also key differences; the glory of Moses’ face was reflected glory which faded with time, but the glory of Jesus here is a revelation of who he really is, and continues even when the vision (Matt 17.9) has passed.
In popular readings, Moses and Elijah are often thought to represent the law and the prophets. But Elijah was not one of the writing prophets, and in Jewish tradition the mysterious circumstances of Moses’ death on Mount Nebo (Deut 34.5–6) and Elijah’s being taken up to God on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2.11) earned them the title of ‘the deathless ones’. Their presence with Jesus is an anticipation of Jesus’ own conquest of death. They also signify the rescuing of God’s people from slavery to freedom (Moses) and the call to faithfulness (Elijah); both encountered God on the mountain (Sinai/Horeb) and both experienced rejection by and suffering at the hands of God’s own people, which makes the connection between the suffering Jesus has just spoken of and the glory which he will receive.
Peter’s clumsy interjection, offering to make shelters and capture the moment, is ameliorated by Mark and Luke in their explanation that he didn’t know what to say in the context of such an unsettling experience. He appears to want the experience to persist, or perhaps to try and make his own contribution when he really should have been simply attending to what was before him. He has not yet understood that this is a drawing back of the curtain, giving him and the other two a glimpse of the heavenly reality of who Jesus really is.
They are covered with a ‘cloud full of light’; all through the story of scripture, clouds signify the presence of God (which is more easy to understand if you live in a country where the sky is blue for much of the time) and this evokes fear as well as awe (compare Ezek 1.4). The voice of God here echoes what was said at Jesus baptism (Matt 3.17), and this time there is no ambiguity as to whether the words are addressed to Jesus or to those watching—the audience of the three disciples are commanded or invited to listen to him. Jesus is not simply one like Moses or Elijah; he far transcends them as the Son of the Living God, the one in whom we encounter God’s own presence and glory. The words also echo Is 42.1, making again the connection between suffering and glory.
Jesus’ final action—unique to Matthew—is that Jesus ‘comes to them’, touches them, and commands them ‘Get up—do not be afraid’. Only here and at his final meeting with them in Galilee (Matt 28.18) is this intensive form of the verb used of Jesus; in all other occurrences it is other people who ‘come to’ Jesus. They are left with the memory, but otherwise only with Jesus—but his company is enough.
Luke moves on to the next episode of Jesus’ ministry, but both Matthew and Mark fill out the details of the disciples’ puzzlement. They still do not understand the significance of this vision or insight—and indeed, they will not until they have begun to make sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are slowly putting together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of Jesus’ identity and how he is fulfilling the purposes of God. We are like those who have been given the puzzle box, with the finished picture on the outside so that we can see with hindsight where the pieces fit together.
In any relationship, it takes time to understand and get to know someone, and even with people we know well, there are times when we gain particular insight into their character by something they do or say which gives us fresh insight into who they are. This seems to be how the Transfiguration functions for the three disciples, and offers key insight into who Jesus is. Is it an insight we have yet gained for ourselves?
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